This month, Serena Williams played what might have been her final match. It was at the 2022 U.S. Open Tennis Championships, in New York City. She has played the sport professionally for 27 years. Now, she has decided to step away. She leaves as one of the greatest athletes of all time.
Williams has been thinking a lot about why she’s hanging up her racket. “Olympia doesn’t like when I play tennis,” she says. Olympia is her 5-year-old daughter. What Olympia would like is to be a big sister.
What comes next for Williams? She’ll focus on her business ventures and on being a mom. “I’m ready,” she told TIME, about moving on. And about parenthood: “I think I’m good at it. But I want to explore if I can be great at it.”
Greatness is something Williams knows well. Before this year’s event, no tennis player, male or female, had won more major championships in the Open Era than she had. (The Open Era is the period starting in 1968, when Grand Slam tennis tournaments began to let professional players compete with amateurs. So the matches were “open” to everyone.)
Williams has accomplished a lot on the court. But it’s what she has meant off the court that makes her one of our most important athletes.
Williams won her first major tournament when she was 17. At a time when tennis had few Black players, she and her older sister Venus became stars. (See “A Life in Tennis.”)
For tennis player Naomi Osaka, Williams is a role model. “No one else has changed the sport as much as she did, and against all odds,” Osaka says.
It isn’t just women and girls who have looked up to the Williams sisters. “They were the two most inspiring sports figures for me,” British race-car driver Lewis Hamilton says. “Especially growing up in my sport, where I’m the only person of color, seeing these two prominent figures . . . really gave me a lot of confidence that I can do something similar. It’s not impossible.”
What does Williams think her legacy is? “Confidence and self-belief,” she says. “Always be authentically you. Own who you are.”
Williams’s Next Chapter
Walking away from the game you’ve spent your life mastering is complicated. “It’s not that I’ve lost my passion for tennis,” Williams says. It’s just that she’s ready to focus on other areas of her life.
As she looks forward to her next chapter, Williams has a message for her millions of fans. “Thank you so much,” she says. “I am so overwhelmed. It’s just been an incredible, incredible ride.” She stops, nods, and brings her hands together. “And I love you.”
A Life in Tennis
Serena Williams was born on September 26, 1981, in Saginaw, Michigan. She grew up in Compton, California. That’s where she and her sister Venus (left) started playing tennis. Their dad, Richard (center), was their first coach.
In 1995, when Serena was 14, she played her first professional tennis match. She lost. But that didn’t stop her. She went on to dominate the sport. Today, people call Serena Williams the GOAT: the greatest of all time.